By Al James[1]
October 2010


Triathlons began in the mid 1970's in the United States. The early triathlon race organizers prepared and disseminated race announcements and instructions with a few basic rules to promote their races. As the sport increased in popularity, race directors and competitors realized the need for a few standing rules, which had to come from an organization with overall jurisdiction.  In 1982, the United States Triathlon Series (USTS) began a series of triathlons on the West Coast with some rules pertaining to the specific venue for the event.  In 1983, the series expanded to the East Coast. The USTS series had a significant impact on the growth and acceptance of more formal understandable rules, primarily because the elite triathletes were competing for prize money, and hopefully a livelihood. Additionally, at this time Carl Thomas and some others in the sport were suggesting the possibility of having triathlon accepted as an Olympic sport. It was recognized that a strong governing body with a large number of members and a strong set of rules would be required.  In August 1983, Triathlon Federation/ USA (Tri-Fed/USA) was designated the Official Governing Body (NGB) for the sport of triathlon. In October 1984, an interim steering Committee, headed by Carl Thomas was organized, and Verne Scott was appointed interim Executive Director in December.  In 1985, Tri-Fed/USA published a Guidebook which included the original set of Triathlon Competitive Rules authored by Al James who sought input from Executive Board members, race directors, and competitors. Verne Scott served as editor.

Rationale for Rules

All competitive sports have special distinctive characteristics which describe and identify the sport. Triathlon is a unique sport, and required its own competitive rules.  The number of swim, bike, run, triathlons increased substantially from the mid 1970's and into the 1980's, which increased concern for rules and safety especially in the bike leg of the event. For example, as packs formed, drafting others gave competitors a significant advantage. There was general agreement that triathlon must be an individual sport where equal opportunity, fair play and sportsmanship should prevail. Hence, drafting was declared illegal. Although most competitors knew what drafting was, there was no written definition or explanation available. Consequently, some bikers worked together and in pelotons.  The rules needed to be written.

Rules Research

Al James researched the rule books of numerous other sports, in order to determine structure, style, detail, etc. Sports with vast "fields of play", such as sailing and golf, presented like parallels with triathlon where competitor integrity is so critical to establishing and enforcing rules.  Team sports, such as soccer, football, baseball, and basketball with centuries/decades of rule development provided valuable principles, which needed to be incorporated in the triathlon rules.  Separate supplemental basketball manuals such as "Comments on the Rules" and "Case Studies", which present hypothetical examples of rule application, also served as valuable source material.  These references plus officiating experience by James served as the basis for building the structure, format and content of the Triathlon Competitive Rules. In addition his experience as sailboat racer, long time basketball referee and overall sports fan helped to recognize the similarities of drafting, with rounding a mark in sailing, a block and charge in basketball, and pass interference in football. In each case the competitors are in very close proximity, each trying to gain a position on an opponent, yet each must adhere to specific rules in order to insure fairness.  In sailing the sailor on starboard tack and to leeward always has the right of way on the race course, especially when rounding a mark. In basketball any player has a right to position on the court so long as they get there first and allow the opponent reasonable space to pass. In football both offensive and defensive players have the right to a thrown football so long as there is no unfair contact with one another.  Each of these scenarios requires the competitor to be mindful of his responsibilities to the rules, and aware of his rights and limitations. In each case the person trying to pass an opponent must avoid contact, and the person ahead must avoid blocking the opponent.

In triathlon bike racing there is a dynamic relationship between the racers, which can result in illegal drafting. By defining blocking, charging, passing, overlap, overtaking and drafting,  James was able to outline a drafting scenario.  The illegal drafting rule continued to be refined and clarified in the early years to insure better understanding and fairness.

In sailing, any violation of the rules resulted in the violator being disqualified. Sailors realized that a DQ was a severe penalty for a single violation. Consequently, a plan was adopted whereby the sailor could absolve him/herself of the violation by admitting the violation and accepting a penalty. The penalty required the sailor to make a 360 degrees turn on the next buoy, or in the case of longer races a 720 degrees turn of the buoy.  In triathlon DQ was a strong penalty for drafting. Hence we established a time penalty to be added to the finish time and a forfeiture of at least one finish position for the first infraction. A second infraction resulted in disqualification.

Unsportsmanlike conduct is an issue in all sports. It is administered by qualified officials and affects competitors, coaches, teams, fans and in some cases the owner of a team.  In triathlons unsportsmanlike conduct was based on the vast experience of the leaders of the sport. It involved relations between triathletes, triathletes and officials, and triathletes and the race director. It was defined as abusive, intentional, violent and flagrant conduct. The respective penalties which could be assessed for unsportsmanlike conduct included reprimand, disqualification or suspension.

The football officiating system provided the framework for designing a proper triathlon officiating crew. In football umpires, field judges and linesman all report to the referee. The referee receives the violation cited by the other officials, confers with others as necessary, and then makes the call. In basketball and baseball every official has the authority to make the call on his/her own.  Determining officials’ responsibilities was drawn from a wide range of sports. In triathlons marshals work the course and bring the violation to the referee who makes the final decision. Marshals cannot unilaterally make a violation call.

Sailing rules provided a sound basis for developing protest and appeal procedures for triathlon.  In sailing there are few, if any, officials on the course. Hence, it is the responsibility of the sailor to file a protest, if he/she feels a foul has been committed. This concept was included in the triathlon rules. Similarly sailing rules deal with protests and appeals. In triathlons the referee was designated as the head of a protest committee which makes a final decision.

Safety was another issue of concern for early race directors, especially in the swim and bike segments. While many participants believed they had adequate swimming skills, very few had competitive open water swimming ability. This created the potential for a life and death situation. Consequently, it became necessary to include a rule which allowed the swimmer to seek help, and/or rest during the swim leg. All strokes plus treading water and floating were allowed. Surf conditions, including rough seas and strong wave action, which caused undertow and rip currents called for rules that would allow an event to be postponed or the swim leg cancelled.  Bike safety became a big issue especially for races held in urban environments. Law enforcement agencies were required at major intersections for vehicle control and monitors for other congested locations. Rules were included that required triathletes to wear fastened, approved safety helmets, obey all traffic laws, keep to the right except to pass and to moderate speed in draft exempt areas, such as in construction zones and in moving through aid stations, etc.

Summary of the Original Rules

Purposes: To create an atmosphere of sportsmanship; provide reasonable safety and protection; emphasize ingenuity and skill without unduly limiting the racer's freedom of action; and to create equal opportunity for all triathletes.

Policies: Address several principles of rule making and enforcement, such as, the importance of knowing the purpose and intent of a rule, the fact that rules are established to eliminate athlete advantage, and the idea that rules are written in general terms to allow officials ample authority to apply the rules.

Responsibilities: The athlete's responsibilities are outlined, including their need: to exercise sound, mature judgment and practice good sportsmanship, to accept responsibility for their own safety and the safety of others, and to be in excellent health and adequately trained.

Rules and Exceptions: The competitive rules apply in all Tri-Fed/USA sanctioned races. Exceptions must not be in conflict with these rules, and must be approved by Tri-Fed/USA.

Definitions: Definitions provide meaning for 28 words relating to triathlons. The word "triathlon" was defined for the first time, as "a sport that combines swimming, bicycling, and running skills in a race".  There are six words that relate to a drafting situation: drafting, overlap, overtake, pass, block and charge.  Equipment used was also defined: bicycles, helmets, headphone, headset, and wetsuits.

Officials: The referee and judges responsibilities are outlined, protests and appeals are defined, and how penalties are assessed and scored in the final race results is explained. The referee supervises and controls the general conduct of a triathlon, while the judges (changed in 1986 to "marshals"), work the course, and report violations of the rules to the referee. Infractions of the rules are penalized by relegation [time penalty], loss of a race position, or disqualification.

Conduct of Triathletes: The General Rules of Conduct set the standards for a triathletes behavior including: the prohibition of drugs, stimulants, and other substances; unauthorized use of assistance; insuring the athlete covers the prescribed course and follows the traffic laws; and preventing the use of unauthorized equipment; etc.

Swimming Conduct: This section establishes the proper procedure for seeking official assistance in the event of a swimming emergency, and allows swimmers the right to stand on the bottom or use water born support to rest without being penalized so long as there is no forward advancement.

Cycling Conduct: This section includes: cyclists must keep to the right; must not draft; must not block, charge or interfere with other cyclists; must wear a securely fastened helmet; and must insure their bicycles meet minimum safety standards among other things

Running Conduct: A triathlete may run or walk the course.

Transition Conduct: The transition from swim to bike, and from bike to run is a unique aspect of the sport. The transition is integral to the race itself. Race directors soon learned what was needed to permit triathletes to make an efficient change from one skill to another. Clear ingress/egress routes and bike racks were critical; port-a-potties, aid and medical stations, change facilities, and official's headquarters were essential. Rules include the athletes must use their designated bike corral and not interfere with another, egress bike speeds were held to acceptable speeds, progress of another must not be impeded, and nudity avoided.

Protest Procedures: Triathlete protests were accepted as a part of the sport. Specific procedures were established for filing a protest including: the specific rule alleged to have been violated, the location and time of the incident, the persons involved in the incident, a statement of facts including a diagram of the situation, and names of witnesses who would testify. Also outlined were procedures for conducting hearing protests. Protestor, protestee and witnesses, two each, were allowed three minutes each to give their account of the incident. The protest committee rendered their decision, and the referee reported the results to the race director for inclusion in the results.

Appeals Committee: Tri-Fed/USA was asked to establish an Appeals Committee to rule on appeals from triathletes on protest findings where a triathlete claims to have been harmed by an incorrect interpretation or application of the competitive rules. The triathlete had to file a notice of appeal no later than ten days from the date of the triathlon, accompanied by a $50 deposit, plus the rationale for the appeal. The Chairperson of the Appeals Committee then handled the appeal, and disseminated his findings to Tri-Fed/USA. 

Comments on the Competitive Rules: The comments section was established to better explain the meaning and parameters of drafting. Several, basic principles were established: a triathlete is entitled to any location on the course providing he/she gets to that position first without contacting an opponent, a triathlete who approaches an opponent from the rear bears responsibility for avoiding drafting and contact even if the opponent slows up, a triathlete passing must be sure he/she can overtake and pass an opponent before making a move to pass and a triathlete must not move or cut into the path of an opponent until the right of way is assumed. Triathlon is defined as an individual sport where teamwork is not allowed.

Drafting: a space of at least two bike lengths must be left between cyclists; maintenance of a static distance of less than two bike lengths between bicyclists constitutes drafting. A cyclist can enter the space of less than two bike lengths only to pass and so long as the cyclist continues to overtake the cyclist ahead. Once a cyclist is passed he/she must drop back. Triathletes are advised to avoid all contact situations.

Timeline of Competitive Rules


The Original Triathlon Guidebook, which included the Competition Rules, was presented to the Tri-Fed/USA Board of Directors in early 1985. Under the leadership of Verne Scott the Guidebook/Rule Book was approved.  Al James sensed that generally the Board was somewhat uncomfortable with having to establish such a comprehensive set of rules at such an early stage of the sport. Board member, Paul Porter, who developed the Tri-Fed/USA insurance program, was a strong advocate for the rule book. In any sport, acceptance of the rules and changes take time, as the rules are constantly "under fire", and triathlon was no exception. Copies were distributed to all race directors of sanctioned events and to individual members of the Federation.

The Safety and Rules Committee continued to work to refine and improve the Rules. The idea of having formal rules continued to be rejected by some of the elite triathletes and race directors. The positive side was that there was now a standard set of approved Rules. This put pressure on race directors to insure enforcement. Race directors usually fulfilled these tasks, as approved officials were not immediately available.  As the race director of the Tampa Bay Triathlon,  James felt this burden. Race directors were concerned about upsetting elite triathletes with bad officiating decisions, and rightly so. Early on, protests were filed by triathletes on one another.  Resolving these disputes was an awesome task as the number and size of protests increased.

Administering protest procedures proved to be a big problem, primarily because the triathletes and race directors wanted to have results available as soon as possible.  At protest hearings, protestor, protestee, and witnesses had three minutes to state their positions on a protest, hence each session could continue for at least 20-30 minutes. This caused long delays before the final result were provided.


Further revision to clarify meanings of terms used in the Rules took place.  The definition of triathlon was changed to read "a sport of individual character and motivation that generally combines swimming, bicycling, and running skills in continuum". The definition for drafting was changed to mean "When a triathlete maintains a static position in close proximity to the rear or side of a lead racer or motor vehicle, and therefore realizes a lift which permits reduced effort and/or concurrent gain".  The definition for passing was expanded to read "When a cyclist closes from the rear of an opponent, continues to improve his position, overlaps, and subsequently overtakes another racer within 30 seconds". For the first time this change added a time limit for passing and it more clearly defined drafting.

Also in 1986, the section on "Comments" was greatly expanded i.e.  A cyclist creates a draft or slipstream which acts as a drawing or sucking force on following competitors. A lead triathlete represents the apex of a draft triangle or cone, the angle of which is proportional to the speed of the lead racer. Triathletes who draft benefit from reduced air resistance and from the force of forward moving air which is drawn into the vacuum created by the lead racer. Packs are generally formed when faster cyclists pass slower racers, and the slower racers fail to drop back.

And, drafting exemptions are introduced for the first time.  Drafting will not be called when cyclists reduce speed for safety reasons such as: a blocked course, an aid station, an emergency, a narrowing of the cycle lane, the egress/ingress of the transition or in making a turn of 90 degrees or more.

Equipment definitions were expanded. The definition of a bicycle was further refined, to control anticipated technological upgrade.  The Rules also stated that helmets had to meet or exceed the safety standards of the American National Standards Institute, ANSIJ and/or the Snell Memorial Foundation, and had to be secured fastened while on the bike.

Three new sections were added: "Case studies for application to the Competitive Rules" which represented hypothetical situations which could occur during a race;  "Diagrams illustrating points relative to drafting" which depicted actual drafting/ non drafting scenarios, and identified the violations; and a section titled "Discipline of triathletes" was added which outlined the grounds for disciplining a triathlete, establishing that a triathlete could be reprimanded, censured, or suspended for not more than one year, and defined the reasons for suspension.

In the fall of 1986 at the USTS Championship in Hilton Head, South Carolina, a referee and several marshals were assigned to officiate. The biggest challenge in enforcing drafting was to determine the best method for observing the bike leg. Since determining drafting involved being able to see an evolving bike scenario for more than 30 seconds, the marshals had to be on a vehicle to be able to observe the total action.  Motorcycle clubs became instant friends of race directors, and fortunately they responded positively. 


A section on "Required Insurance Licensing" (RIL) was added to the Rules. All triathletes competing in Tri-Fed/USA sanctioned races were required to be licensed by the Federation. While this section was primarily an administrative matter, it was included to insure that triathletes understood their obligation to compete in compliance with the Rules.  Another new section “Enforcement” was added to better highlight rule infringement, assessing penalties, protests, appeals, and discipline of triathletes. In assessing penalties the levels of penalties were clarified to include time penalties, disqualification, and suspension [in order of increasing severity]. Time penalties were equated with length of the race course. A second penalty would result in disqualification.

Once again drafting received the most attention. Drafting was redefined to be anytime a cyclist enters a Drafting Zone. The Zone was defined as "A rectangle which is six feet wide by three bike lengths long surrounding every bicycle on the bike leg. The long sides of the rectangle are parallel to the bicycle it surrounds, and the leading edge of the front wheel divides the leading short side of the rectangle into two equal parts". The Drafting Zone, “Other”, was defined as "a rectangle extending ten feet each side of and fifty feet behind every other moving vehicle on a triathlon race course". A pack was defined as two or more cyclists within one another's draft zone who exchange leads and/or perpetuate drafting". And the passing definition time limit for passing was decreased from 30 to 15 seconds.  Additionally, "Once a cyclist has been overtaken, it is the responsibility of the overtaken cyclist to immediately break the draft by moving outside the Draft Zone to the side or rear. The overtaken cyclist must use one of these methods before attempting to re-pass that particular opponent". A cyclist was required to obey the traffic laws.

Water temperature parameters were established for wearing wetsuits. It was recommended that "the upper temperature limit" for use of wetsuits be 72 degrees Fahrenheit, plus or minus 2 degrees at the direction of the race director". "The water temperature was to be measured in the middle of the swim course at a depth of two feet below the surface".

The definition of a bicycle was greatly expanded including height and length dimensions, prohibited accessories, diameter and configuration of wheels, and brake requirements.  Appeals jurisdiction was added which stated for the first time "There shall be no appeal of a judgment call".  A judgment call shall include, but not be limited to drafting, blocking, and unsportsmanlike conduct. This policy was a very important development in strengthening the authority of the officials.


The Board of Directors added a new section "Safety and Competitive Rule Changes" which outlined the procedures for making future changes to the Competitive Rules.  First Tri-Fed/USA would collect suggestions from members and distribute them to Rules Committee members. Then the Committee was to study the suggestions, and make recommendations to the Board. The Board would then make the proposals available to members for 60 days for comments. The Committee would then review all the data before submitting their final recommendation to the Board. The Board would make their final decision before placing the approved changes in the Competitive Rule Book.


A new administration headed Tri-Fed/USA in 1989. The Board of Directors approved a revised Competitive Rule book which was reformatted and reorganized, though the intent and principles of the 1988 revisions were retained.  A new section was added "Medical Control Rules" which included a policy statement, prohibited conduct, tests and testing obligations, testing procedures, handling test results, appeals, penalties, and a long list of USOC/IOC prohibited substances. This put Tri-Fed/USA in line with other national sports.  Protest jurisdiction, another significant addition, was added to include "no protest can be made on judgment calls". This policy further strengthened the official’s authority. Much like an umpire's call of balls and strikes in baseball, and a referee call on a block and charge in basketball. These calls cannot be contested by players or coaches. In triathlons an official's call cannot be protested. The only time a triathlete can protest a drafting situation is when a marshal is not present.


A new administration headed Tri-Fed/USA, and the Board of Directors approved significant changes in the Rules.  The revised Rules provided more protection for the triathletes. The text read like a legal document, which made understanding more complicated. However, the basic purpose and intent of the 1988 revisions was retained. The Protest and Appeals sections were greatly expanded, and described in greater detail. A new term "position fouls" was added to the illegal drafting rule. The drafting zone which defines the parameters of a bike draft rectangle was incorporated in the rules in 1987. The position foul tried to define the legal/illegal relationship between triathletes in a dynamic biking environment. However triathletes are aggressive racers, and generally don't position themselves. The term position foul added little to reduce/eliminate or define drafting.

NOTE: Comments and suggestions are encouraged and should be addressed to:

Al James
50 Coe Rd.  Apt 135
Belleair, FL 33756

[1]  AI James:   Founder/Race Director:  Clearwater Beach Triathlon, USTS Tampa Bay Triathlon, Tampa Bay Triathlon, Sunshine State Games Triathlon, and Member, Board of Directors, Tri-Fed/USA, and   Florida Region, Tri-Fed/USA